Jost Haidt

by Andrew Gelman on October 2, 2012 · 9 comments

in Politics Everywhere,Public opinion

Research psychologist John Jost reviews the recent book, “The Righteous Mind,” by research psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Some of my thoughts on Haidt’s book are here. And here’s some of Jost’s review:

Haidt’s book is creative, interesting, and provocative. . . . The book shines a new light on moral psychology and presents a bold, confrontational message. From a scientific perspective, however, I worry that his theory raises more questions than it answers. Why do some individuals feel that it is morally good (or necessary) to obey authority, favor the ingroup, and maintain purity, whereas others are skeptical? (Perhaps parenting style is relevant after all.) Why do some people think that it is morally acceptable to judge or even mistreat others such as gay or lesbian couples or, only a generation ago, interracial couples because they dislike or feel disgusted by them, whereas others do not? Why does the present generation “care about violence toward many more classes of victims today than [their] grandparents did in their time” (p. 134)? Haidt dismisses the possibility that this aspect of liberalism, which prizes universal over parochial considerations (the justice principle of impartiality), is in fact a tremendous cultural achievement—a shared victory over the limitations of our more primitive ancestral legacy. In this spirit, he spurns the John Lennon song, “Imagine”:

Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would ‘be as one.’ It’s a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell. I think conservatives are on to something. (p. 311)

Throughout the book Haidt mocks the liberal vision of a tolerant, pluralistic, civil society, but, ironically, this is precisely where he wants to end up, quoting Isaiah Berlin with evident approval at the end of his book: “I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments” (p. 320).

Good point. Jost also writes:

Haidt draws sparingly on the details of contemporary research in social and political psychology, usually as a foil for his ostensibly above-the-fray approach. Consider this passage:

I began by summarizing the standard explanations that psychologists had offered for decades: Conservatives are conservative because they were raised by overly strict parents, or because they are inordinately afraid of change, novelty, and complexity, or because they suffer from existential fears and therefore cling to a simple worldview with no shades of gray. These approaches all had one feature in common: they used psychology to explain away conservatism. They made it unnecessary for liberals to take conservative ideas seriously because these ideas are caused by bad childhoods or ugly personality traits. I suggested a very different approach: start by assuming that conservatives are just as sincere as liberals, and then use Moral Foundations Theory to understand the moral matrices of both sides. (pp. 166-167)

This paragraph illustrates both the slipperiness of Haidt’s prose and the extent to which key issues are unresolved by his theory. First, there is a great deal of empirical evidence indicating that conservatives are in fact less open to change, novelty, and complexity and are more likely to perceive the world as a dangerous place than liberals (Carney et al., 2008; Gerber et al., 2010; Jost et al., 2003). Rather than attempting to grapple with these findings, which are uncomfortable for his view of political ideology, Haidt characterizes them with argumentative language ( “overly,” “inordinately,” “suffer,” “cling,” “bad childhoods,” and “ugly personality traits”) to suggest that these claims have to be false because they sound so . . . pejorative. Second, he claims that past researchers have “used psychology to explain away conservatism,” as if there is no difference between explaining something and explaining it away. Third, Haidt switches at the last moment from discussing the origins and characteristics of liberals and conservatives to the issue of sincerity, as if it were impossible to sincerely believe something that is rooted in childhood or other psychological experiences. Psychological scientists recognize that questions about the social, cognitive, and motivational underpinnings of a belief system are distinct from questions about its validity (and whether it should be taken “seriously,” which is not a scientific question at all).

Jost is arguing that Haidt has some interesting things to say but trips up when trying to insert all of this into a particular political message about liberals and conservatives.

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